I’ve recently turned myself into something of a social experiment in an attempt to cut single-use plastic out of my life. This was sparked off by the realisation that single-use, disposable plastic rubbish is currently choking our oceans, killing wildlife, fragmenting into tiny pieces and getting into the food chain. If anyone wants to educate themselves a bit more on this scary development, you can click here.
Sadly, avoiding single-use plastic is pretty tough. If you’re not extremely meticulous in planning your shopping, your hydration, nutrition, and personal hygiene may take a serious hit, and I’ve occasionally caved in and bought convenience food, water in plastic bottles and essentials like toiletries in plastic packaging. It’s nice to feel self-righteous and all, but no one wants to be hungry/thirsty/smelly.
Anyway, over the last nine months, I’ve really changed how I live and I am proud of myself, if also a bit freaked out. I buy plastic-free groceries, have cut out impulse-buying, gotten electronic goods repaired instead of buying new ones, and educated myself in the ways of recycling and composting. Once you get into a routine and form new habits, it isn’t so hard. Yet once I leave the comfort of my own home and travel somewhere, all my good intentions go out the window. I’ve let myself off zero-waste living while travelling for the most part, telling myself it’s too awkward to have to think about dragging reusable cups and bags to different countries. But on my latest venture abroad, I decided to try “be good” and avoid creating unnecessary waste for the sake of convenience.
I am currently in Lyon at a pathology symposium. It’s only a two-day trip, so I decided that this would be as good a time as any to try travel waste-free. And before anyone feels the need to comment that flying is itself wasteful, I should state that I do realise this. In fact, I used this handy calculator to work out my carbon footprint (0.22 tonnes of CO2, in case anyone cares). Had I driven, it would have taken 17.5 hours each way, and an even more energy-economic cycle would have taken 160 hours return, both of which I feel would be a bit much. I have to admit I’ve taken many short-haul flights over the last few years: mainly work-related, but I still can’t help but feel bad. Then again, I’m not sure my employers would grant me the extra week off it would take to cycle to places like France, no matter how much I explained about climate change. I do intend to spend more time holidaying in and exploring Ireland on future holidays, and there’s always the ferry to the UK or France… But more of that another time.
Confession aside, I decided to pack up a few zero-waste essentials which I thought might be useful for the trip. I included my ceramic reusable cup, my reusable metal water bottle, my bamboo cutlery, bars of shampoo, conditioner, soap and exfoliator in tins, and my newest find: toothpaste-tabs, purchased in the zero-waste store I visited in Berlin (I wrote about it here if you care to have a read).
Water bottle (from Avoca, Ooh la la) and mug (stolen from my parent’s gaff)
Soap tins, perfect for travel
My soap collection
The white things are toothpaste tablets, in case anyone is considering calling the police. The capsules are my multivitamins 🙂
Bamboo cutlery set
I rocked up in Dublin airport, my arm a little sore thanks to the extra half-kilo or so of stuff crammed into my handbag (ceramic cups are heavy!). After getting through security and having a poke around the shops in snazzy Terminal 2, I realised just how eco-unfriendly airports are. I mean this as no insult to Dublin Airport, who’s free wifi and super-lovely staff (yes, even the scary security people) make it a relatively pleasant place to spend time waiting for a flight. It’s just the convenience culture of travel in general. Thanks to the flight regulations restricting the volume of liquids you can take through security, the airport pharmacy is the perfect place to stock up on tiny “essentials”, such as mini-shampoos, hairspray, body lotion and god knows what else. I have no doubt that most of these little bottles get half-used and are then tragically dumped in a hotel room somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong: I used to love mini-toiletries. There was a time where I’d treat myself to a whole set of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and all the rest of it before going on holiday, like a good obedient little consumer. There’s something adorable about wee rows of little colourful bottles that inspires almost maternal feelings of longing within me. But I resisted the urge to buy anything, except a glass roll-on deodorant which I felt was necessary given that temperatures in Lyon were forecast to be in the thirties, and no one wants to be that smelly conference delegate.
Another massive source of waste in airports comes from the eateries. My dead arm was worth it when I realised there were no ceramic mugs in the upstairs Harvest Café for tea or coffee: only disposable, non-recyclable take-away cups. Luckily the soup and bread I ordered were served on actual crockery, and the cutlery was reusable. But I was somewhat horrified when I saw the sheer number of plastic bottles, pre-packaged sandwiches and wraps, chocolate bar and crisps on sale in every shop and cafe. Even Butler’s Chocolate Café place your free chocolate in a little plastic bag, despite the fact that most people probably walk to a chair several metres away and eat it within minutes (the chocolate, not the bag). Actually, I wasn’t that horrified, because I’ve seen it all before, and thought about it all before, and it’s all a bit mind-numbing after a while.
Then onto the (pollution-spewing) airplane I got, and witnessed a similar story. A single cup of tea ordered on the plane comes in a non-recyclable cup with a plastic lid, with several plastic sachets of milk, and a small plastic bag containing a plastic stirrer, a napkin, and paper sachets of sugar. Again, I had to practice my mindfulness in order to stop myself feeling upset at the sheer volume of unnecessary crap being produced. And I don’t fault Aer Lingus specifically: all airlines are the same. I’m sure they have all sorts of health and safety rules to adhere to, in order to protect themselves in case a passenger spills hot tea on themselves or comes down with food poisoning the day after the flight. It’s just sad that things have gotten to be the way they are.
After landing, I sweatily trekked across sweltering Lyon (on public transport, go me) to find my accommodation. I have all sorts of opinions on how Air BnB is contributing to the rental crises (in Ireland at least), but that doesn’t stop me using the site to find places to stay when I’m travelling. I’m like someone who’s really anti-smoking guiltily lighting up when they’re a bit tipsy and no one they know is looking. I do that too sometimes, though I’m getting way better: the fact that cigarette butts aren’t biodegradable is a major deterrent. I do feel that Air BnBs may be a bit more environmentally-friendly than a hotel at least: Usually you don’t get given free mini-toiletries, bottles of water, and heaps of little disposable plastic sachets of coffee and milk and the like, and I imagine they’re overall more energy-efficient that huge hotels that have lights on and water heating on a constant basis. My lovely host, Eric, showed me around and walked me to the nearby Supermarché (check out that French!) where I agonised over what minimal-waste foodstuffs I could allow myself to buy- sadly they didn’t have a bakery and the fruit was all a bit sad-looking, and required weighing in mini plastic bags (I don’t have the language skills to argue over that one), so I stuck to tinned stuff: at least aluminium is recyclable.
Finally, I got to luxuriate in a nice shower, in the company of my sheep’s milk shampoo bar, Lush Big Daddy O conditioner bar, and free soap provided by Eric. I then knocked back a bottle of rather strong Belgian Trappist beer which I felt I definitely deserved after all that hassle, not to mention the general stress caused by witnessing the casual, slow smothering of our planet under a thick blanket of toxic garbage… Oh god, here I go again… and the beer is all gone… I guess tea in my (reusable) mug will have to do…